Interview with Filmmaker Stanley Nelson

Freedom Summer

June 20, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


Michael Slate recently interviewed filmmaker Stanley Nelson—whose latest work, Freedom Summer, premieres June 24 on the PBS program American Experience—for his radio show on KPFK (90.7 FM, Los Angeles). The following is the transcript of that interview.


Michael Slate: In January at the Sundance Film Festival, I had a chance to see a film that just knocked me back in my seat. The film is called Freedom Summer, and it's by the award-winning director Stanley Nelson. He's the director of at least a dozen other feature documentaries, including The Murder of Emmett Till and Freedom Riders, both of which also had a deep impact on me, and on many people throughout the country.

Stanley's joining us today to talk about his new film, Freedom Summer. Stanley, welcome to the show.

Stanley Nelson: Thanks very much. It's great to be with you.

Michael Slate: Give people a sense of what Freedom Summer is about. Tell them the story of the film.

Stanley Nelson: Well, in the summer of 1964, it was decided that SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—pronounced "snick"] and CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] and a couple other civil rights groups would get together and send over 700 volunteers into Mississippi. These 700 volunteers were mostly college students, mostly white, who would go down to Mississippi for the summer and work in voter registration and what they called Freedom Schools, for the whole summer. And what was really different about this was that even though in '64 the civil rights movement had spread all over the South, it had really not spread to Mississippi. The idea was that Mississippi was the worst of the worst, and the best thing that you could do in Mississippi was to try to change Mississippi from the outside. Or that the civil rights movement can work its way up into, in later years, them getting into Mississippi. But these young people who were running SNCC, mainly, said, “No, we can go into Mississippi, and we need to go in now.”

Michael Slate: As I was watching the film and as I was thinking about it this morning, I thought about your other films, in particular Freedom Riders. I guess you could also talk about The Murder of Emmett Till. And the fact that these two films, but especially Freedom Riders about the 1961 movement of people going to the South to defy and fight against the Jim Crow laws throughout the South—you think about the great courage it took, but also the way that that really shaped and changed the next decades. It really changed history. Let's talk a little about the relationship between Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer.

Stanley Nelson: Freedom Riders was three years earlier, that was 1961. I think the difference in Freedom Summer was that the volunteers were going to go down there and stay in Mississippi. And mainly, again, these were white college students, but they had to stay with African-American families in the Black community. So this was very different. This was not kind of a ride through the South. This was, “We're going to go. We're going to stay there for six weeks, eight weeks, and we're just going to be there.” So it was very, very dangerous, and a very, very risky proposition for everybody involved.

Michael Slate: With the three years between the time of Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer, was there anything that had changed in the South? And what made the Freedom Summer necessary?

Stanley Nelson: I think that in some places, the civil rights movement had started to take hold, but not so in Mississippi. In Mississippi in 1964, at the start of Freedom Summer, African-Americans were about half the population of Mississippi. And that's what really made Mississippi different from anywhere else in the United States, including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, all the states in the Deep South. Because Mississippi was pretty nearly 50 percent Black. But only 6.7 percent of the African American population could vote. So Mississippi was, again, kind of the worst of the worst, the hardest of the hard.

Michael Slate: I'm really intrigued by that, because I think it's important for people to understand what the people in Mississippi were up against. This was, as you said, the worst of the worst. But it also concentrated and took to a whole new level a lot of what existed throughout the South. That was a question I had, why Mississippi in particular? What was the situation in Mississippi? Just so people get a sense of what it meant to be Black and be living in Mississippi at that time.

Stanley Nelson: Well, it was state-sponsored terrorism. There was a real thought that, and in a lot of ways it was true, that if African-Americans were allowed to vote, because they were 50 percent of the population, the whole state would change, elected officials would change, and what white Southerners called their “way of life,” would end. And so every measure was taken to keep Black people oppressed. And one of the biggest oppressions was to make sure that they did not vote. So if you got the courage to register to vote, you would go down to the registrar to vote and then a registrar would have complete say over whether you got on the rolls or not. You would have to take a test, which might be to interpret the state constitution, or part of the state constitution, which if you were Black you would fail.

But not only would you fail the test, if you got into the courthouse—you might get beat up trying to get in the courthouse—but if you got in, you failed the test, then your name might be put in the newspaper the next day. They had a little box where they would list the names of the people who tried to register to vote. You tried to register to vote. If you worked for a white person, as many, many Black people did, you'd be fired from your job. If you had a loan for your farm, or for your small business, hairdresser, or whatever, the bank might call in your loan. It was just a terrible, terrible situation.

SNCC had been down in Mississippi since 1961, a few SNCC workers trying to register people to vote. But the few people that they could even get to come down to the courthouse, they would be refused, and then there would be more repercussions against those people. So the idea was, we're going to flood Mississippi with these 700 volunteers. But also, which was a brilliant strategy, was that, we're going to bring the eyes of the country on Mississippi.

So, simply by bringing these 700 or 800 white volunteers down here, we're going to make the whole country look at Mississippi, and focus its attention on Mississippi.

Michael Slate: I know what you're saying about how all of this was focused up around voting rights, and it was very important, because that was really a statement of the position of Black people in society. And I kept thinking about this as I was watching the film. This was focused up around voting rights, but the lack of voting rights was also part of a whole oppressing and dehumanizing apparatus in the South. There's a direct continuum, a through-line, from the days of slavery to the smashing of reconstruction, to Jim Crow, and then if you play it out, to this day. Can we talk a little bit about that, the idea of this dehumanizing? Because that's one of the things I got from your film, too. Your film really brought something very powerful to me in terms of understanding what it meant to be Black in Mississippi in the fullest sense.

Stanley Nelson: I think for me, as a filmmaker, that was one of the things that was really important: to try to give the viewer a sense of what it meant to be Black. But also, we use a lot of film clips from back in that day, with white Southerners, white Mississippians, so you could hear in their own words what they felt, and what they thought. And I think that's really, really important. I think that one of the things that had to happen in the South, and as you say, in South Africa and in those situations is, if you're going to have this kind of racist regime, you have to dehumanize the people that you're oppressing. That's one of the things that was done over hundreds of years in Mississippi.

Michael Slate: When you talk about SNCC, I want people to know what that was. Could you give a brief description of that?

Stanley Nelson: Yes. SNCC was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was actually a student group that existed on campuses at first. It was run by African-Americans. There were some white members, but it was run by African-Americans. It was very powerful and influential in the civil rights movement in those years, from 1961 to 1964. Because they were young, they were very different from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP and some of the other groups. They were kind of the spearhead of the movement in some ways. They went into Mississippi when everybody said, “You can't go into Mississippi.”

A lot of the people who came out of SNCC were the ones who joined the Freedom Rides after the first group of freedom riders were turned back.

Michael Slate: When you talk about the importance of getting the white voices out there, too, it was pretty interesting, what you showed there. There were the mainly white students who came down to Mississippi. And then there's the white people in Mississippi—diametrically opposed poles. And when you look at that, I was wondering, how was it to find these people and to be able to incorporate this into your film? You have some white people saying and doing some things in there that get your blood boiling to this day.

Stanley Nelson: And that's one of the hardest things always to find, is people who will talk clearly about how they felt back then as white Southerners. But I think it's really important, so that's something that we really look for.

We were lucky to find a guy who is actually a history professor down in Mississippi and really to this day believes that Black people are inferior, and that white people who feel like that and won't talk about it are being hypocrites. [Laughing] It still took a little convincing for us to get him to appear on camera, but I think he adds another dimension to the film.

Michael Slate: Definitely, including his assessment that, “Well, we really didn't need the KKK down here. We were doing pretty well ourselves.”

Stanley Nelson: Right, which was something that was really amazing about Mississippi. They had something called the Citizens' Council, which was a group that somebody called “the uptown Ku Klux Klan.” It was a group of businessmen and people in the community. Their motto was something like, “Preserving the Southern Way of Life.” And that's what they did. These were the people who could get together and call in your bank loans, or any kind of reprisals that they needed to do if Black people stepped out of line at all, in any way.

Michael Slate: Let's talk about an aspect of the Freedom Summer that I think a lot of people don't know that much about. I was talking to someone this morning who was really taken by that. She said when she went to see the film, she realized there was one aspect she didn't know anything about and she was very moved by, and that was the Freedom Schools. Let's talk about what they were and why they were so important.

Stanley Nelson: One of the things that happened when they were planning Freedom Summer, to send 700 to 800 students down there, was they said, “Look, we've got all these people. What else can we do?” And one of the things that they decided to do was have Freedom Schools. There were Freedom Schools all over the state that they set up. They were set up at first for kids, all the way through high school. But to come and to learn and to read. You have to understand that in Mississippi, African-Americans were not allowed in the public libraries. So you couldn't even go into the public library and get a book. In schools, Black history or Black authors or anything like that were forbidden to be taught. So as people have said, they didn't even know that Black people had written a book until they went to Freedom Schools.

So Freedom Schools taught Black history. They taught Black dance. They did plays. They just did everything. And so many people to this day talk about what they got out of school, and how that summer, and opening up their minds to another world, changed their life even to this day.

Michael Slate: It wasn't the case that people could just walk out and do this without any fear of retribution. And also the life that people were leading—the idea that you put a lot on the line to even go to these schools, right?

Stanley Nelson: Yeah. People would park their cars across from the schools. There were massive amounts of beatings, and there were bombings. Schools were bombed. Churches were set on fire. Fifty-five churches were burned that summer. Just to go to the schools was taking your life into your own hands.

I think one of the things that we do in the film that I'm really proud of, and some of the people who were part of Freedom Summer have mentioned this to me, is that we try to talk about the Mississippians who were part of Freedom Summer. Because all of the 700 to 800 white students who went down there had to stay in the Black community. They had to find housing. They had to find a place that would take them in. But the people who took them in, they were part of that community, and they had to stay there. So after the volunteers left at the end of summer, they had to stay there. They had to have the courage to let these people in their house. Everybody knew who they were. But when the volunteers left, they had to stay in Mississippi, to stay in these small towns.

So, to me, some of the Mississippians who were part of Freedom Summer were just really, really courageous.

Michael Slate: That's an extremely important point, because I was thinking about this in terms of the violence that was sort of daily life in Mississippi. People could say that's the same thing that happens throughout the South, whatever, but really there was a concentration of this in Mississippi. In a certain sense there was a focused battle line that actually impacted and had import for the entire country, and in a lot of ways, for the people all around the world who were watching what was happening. And that was violence and death and jailing and beatings. They were a constant, not just threat, but a reality for the Black people who took the volunteers in, who worked with them, who actually became part of this movement themselves in many different ways, as well as for the volunteers that came down there. You just basically accepted that this was a possibility.

Stanley Nelson: Right. One of the things that I think is so interesting about the United States, was that, almost from the beginning, the United States made a pact that the South could do what it wanted, and the North wouldn't look—you know, would kind of shade its eyes, and hide its eyes. And that had happened—we're literally talking about hundreds of years, from slavery, end of slavery, reconstruction, hundreds of lynchings that were never talked about, never reported in the papers in the North. And one of the brilliant things about the whole civil rights movement, and Freedom Summer in particular, was that it said, no, you have to look. We are going to force you to look. And in Freedom Summer, we're going to force you to look by bringing your sons and your daughters down to Mississippi, and you're going to have to look.

Now I have to say that one of the most important things and terrible things to happen during Freedom Summer was actually the very first day, three workers went down to Mississippi, Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman, and disappeared. The very first day of Freedom Summer. That colored the whole summer and riveted the attention of the United States on where these three missing boys were.

Michael Slate: And that actually, the way you bring it out in the film, too, it was interesting because it also posed a question. On the one hand, you have the Black people who lived in the area, and this was part of their life. On the other hand, you have these hundreds of volunteers, for whom this was not part of their life. But they had to face this and make a decision about—as you're saying, the day before, and people are getting ready to come down, and they had to then stop and say, look, is the cause greater than the threat? And to me, that was a really inspiring moment in the film and in reality as well.

Stanley Nelson: Yeah, it's one of the most amazing pieces of the film, and I think of that history, that the three go missing, the other volunteers are getting ready to go down to Mississippi, and they're given the choice: Look, you can back out now, because these three guys are missing and if they're missing, we pretty much know what that means, that they're dead, and you can back out now. But I think maybe one person actually backed out, and the rest of them got on the buses and went down to Mississippi.

Michael Slate: The other thing I wanted to ask you a little bit about is the idea. When Freedom Summer was first proposed, it was somewhat controversial. Can we talk about that a little?

Stanley Nelson: Yeah. There had been maybe 20 workers from SNCC and other organizations down in Mississippi, as I mentioned earlier, trying to register people to vote. And then they came up with the idea, well, let's bring these white volunteers down here. There was a big debate about whether they should do that or not. I think that's one of the real surprises in the film, that there's this real tension that arises, because some of the workers, who were at that point probably 95 percent Black, felt like, “No, we've been working here for three years, struggling, busting our butts, to get people involved. And now you want to bring these white Northerners who know nothing about this work, and know nothing about Mississippi, to come down here.” And there was a real debate about whether Freedom Summer should happen at all.

Michael Slate: Yeah, it's interesting. And you look at that and you think about, OK, that debate, exactly what you're saying, rooted in a lot of reality, in terms of, what are the conditions? What are the things facing us? And the idea actually bringing all this in might ratchet it up. You have some scenes in there that are just remarkable, in terms of the way that the state, that the authorities in Mississippi tried to use the sort of white skin privilege, white privilege, the idea of the Black predator and the white victim, including a lot of women and all this stuff. And the whole thing that was brought against both the white youth that came down there, the Black people who lived there, as well as the organizers, was very, very heavy.

Stanley Nelson: It was not an easy situation. What I like about it is that you can easily understand both sides. I totally understand the side of the SNCC workers who were saying, “Wait. No. We've worked down here for three years. We're making a little bit of progress.”

One of the things that was really important to them was that the Mississippi residents were taking charge of their own destiny. “And now you want to bring these white people in here, who for so long they've seen as their masters or their betters, and now you want to bring them in here to help them. What we're trying to do is get them to help themselves.” So it was a real debate that went on, and a tension, that even after it was decided to do Freedom Summer, there was still tension there because so many of the original workers resented the white volunteers.

Michael Slate: Although you do have some points in there, too, where you show people who were among those who originally resented it, but then as things went on and they saw the way that the different groupings of people came together and worked around this extremely important cause.

Stanley Nelson: Yeah, I think that that was part of it. And I think, too, as I said, the day before it was officially supposed to start, Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman disappeared. Chaney was an African-American from Mississippi, but Schwerner and Goodman were both white kids from New York. So the white kids had, it looked like, given up their lives already. So how could you now resent them?

Michael Slate: Let's talk about the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and what happened around that. Because I sat there and I thought, wow, I have never seen so much truth so clearly exposed and wow!

Stanley Nelson: I'm so glad you asked about that. The third part of Freedom Summer was—the first part was registering people to vote, the second is the Freedom Schools. But the third was the idea of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. And the idea of that was, this was 1964, and it was the presidential election year, and Lyndon Johnson was going to be nominated to be reelected as president. The convention was in Atlantic City.

So the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was a new political party that was started by the Freedom Summer volunteers and by the activists, the SNCC workers, the CORE workers, etc. The idea was that they would go to Atlantic City and challenge the all-white delegation from Mississippi. And they would go and say, “Look, this is a segregated party. We are an integrated party. We have whites and Blacks in our party. And our delegation should be seated at the convention instead of the all-white delegation from Mississippi. Now, this was something that had never been done before. But it was perfectly legal, and they did it all by the book. They hired a very high-powered Washington attorney to kind of be their counsel. They had a lot going for them going into Atlantic City.

Michael Slate: Yeah, they had a lot going for them, but they also had a lot of major power forces working behind the scenes, and not so behind the scenes, to sabotage the whole thing.

Stanley Nelson: Yeah. One of the most startling parts of the film and parts of the story is that Lyndon Johnson, who is president, is recording all his phone calls at the White House. We were able to get the audio recordings of him on the phone where he is behind the scenes pulling strings to defeat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, at the same time saying, “Keep my name out of it. Don't let anybody know.” He says things like, “We can't let the Nigras take over the country. We've got to stop them.” I mean it's just incredible to hear the president of the United States talk like that.

Michael Slate: Yeah. It's an eye-opener for anyone who keeps thinking, “Oh, those Democrats, they're our friends.

Stanley Nelson: I think that was one of the outcomes of Freedom Summer and the challenge by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. After that, it was really hard for the people involved to say, “The Democrats are our friends.” It was kind of thought that, if we just do everything by the book, if we show that we're better than these racists, that people will have to support us. And that was kind of one of the underlying ideas of the civil rights movement. But in some ways, with what happens in Atlantic City, that whole idea falls apart for so many people. After that, white people are kicked out of SNCC. Very soon after that, Stokely Carmichael goes down to Alabama, and stands up and starts yelling “Black power!”

So, a lot came out of the challenge in Atlantic City that kind of shifted the civil rights movement, but also shifted politics, because that was the last time that the Democratic Party was the party of the South.

Michael Slate: One of the questions I had for you was, if you look at all this now, all that was fought for, all that was sacrificed, in that period, and there were certain realities that were accomplished. Jim Crow was ended. You had, as you mentioned in the film, unprecedented numbers of Black officials in Mississippi, and I'll venture to say, in other parts of the South. And you take that all the way up to today where people can say, “Well, there've been certain gains. You even have a Black president.”

But all of that goes up against the continuing horror that's life for Black people in this country. I was just talking with somebody about Jordan Davis in Florida and what that concentrates in terms of the through-line going back to Dred Scott, that a Black person has no rights that a white man is obliged to respect—all the way up through all of this. And you keep looking at this and thinking, where the hell is this going? The racist murders, the police murders, the mass incarceration, and then the gutting of voting rights, a slap in the face. Even as you're watching this film, and then you realize, wait a minute, they just gutted a lot of this.

For you now, as a filmmaker and as a person in this society, how do you see all that in relation to what was done, and then what's going on today?

Stanley Nelson: This is probably the third film that I've done that has Mississippi as kind of a central character, and the South as a center. When you look at the film footage and when you talk to people, you have to say it's gotten better. It's really hard to say, oh, you know, as a lot of people do, saying things are just as bad. It's gotten better. But, what does that mean? What does that really mean? So we've gotten a little better. I think part of it is us. What I've learned and what I’ve seen is that it's a constant struggle. The struggle's never going to be over.

Part of something for us as African-Americans, we just want the struggle to be over. Because we've struggled for so long. So we want to say, “Slavery ended. Whew! It's over!” And then it's like, more hell. Then it's like, “Jim Crow is over! Whew!” No. More hell. So I think what I take away from all this is no, the struggle is never going to be over. We've got to continue to struggle, and that's where we kind of need to go. We've just got to keep fighting and keep struggling. Or else we can go backwards.

One of the things I've seen in doing a couple of films about history is that we also want to think that history is this kind of upward climb—“Up from Slavery.” But it's not. It's like a roller-coaster ride. And if we don't keep struggling, then the roller coaster starts going down. And the gains we're having in this country were not given to anybody. They were because people fought and died.

Michael Slate: Just one last thought on this. If you step back and you look at all this from the standpoint of morality and truth and where those two come together, it really is inspiring, in the film that you did, in terms of the courage and moral certitude involved on the part of everyone who took part in Freedom Summer. People really did—they committed their lives based on their understanding of how important the cause was, but how true the central fight was: how true that was and how important it was for humanity. I'm sort of echoing what you just said, but it does sort of issue a call to a whole new generation of people, as well as those from other generations who are still around, to actually heed that call, that relationship between truth and morality, and really act.

Stanley Nelson: I think one of the things that's so amazing about the Freedom Summer story is that you have the people from SNCC and CORE who go down there on their own, just with this incredible bravery, down there to Mississippi. You have the volunteers, mainly white college students, who had nothing for themselves to gain, but everything to gain. As one student says at the end, “The person who got the most out of Freedom Summer was me.”

And then you have the other group of Mississippi residents who risk their lives over and over again to fight for their own freedom. So I think it inspires all of us, no matter where you're coming from, to understand we've just got to keep fighting.

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